Groups seek order for White House to preserve foreign call records

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President Donald Trump

A government transparency group and historical archivist groups have asked a federal court to intervene immediately in the Trump administration’s record-keeping practices — a move that seizes on new allegations that the White House has restricted access to some of President Donald Trump’s conversations with world leaders.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the National Security Archive and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations asked DC-based federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson on Tuesday for a temporary restraining order that would force the White House to preserve all records of meetings, phone calls and other communications with foreign leaders. They also asked the court to order the White House to keep all documents regarding policies, legal advice and investigations about record-keeping.

Jackson spoke with the lawyers in the lawsuit in a phone call Tuesday afternoon. She sought assurances from the Justice Department that any presidential records would be safe as the groups’ lawsuit continues — setting aside recent allegations that the White House mishandled transcripts of Trump’s calls with foreign leaders. That assurance would eliminate the need for Jackson to get involved by considering a restraining order on the White House.

But the Justice Department refused to say that the White House would preserve all records related to Trump’s calls with foreign leaders, saying the administration’s legal team hadn’t gotten authorization from the White House to say so.

Instead, Kathryn Wyer, a Justice Department attorney, assured the judge that there was no “risk” the documents would be destroyed by the White House.

“There is really no issue, it seems to us, that there is any risk of anything not being preserved,” Wyer said.

Jackson ordered that the Justice Department confirm to the court by Wednesday afternoon that records will be kept, or else she may step in further on the White House’s immediate practices.

The three groups had sued Trump and his executive office in May for failing to document at least five meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and one with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Jackson — a judge known for presiding over the criminal cases of several defendants charged in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — had been poised at the earliest to consider initial questions in the lawsuit at the end of this month. But that was before the recent developments accusing the White House of restricting access to several transcripts of calls between Trump and foreign leaders, including the controversial July 25 phone call between the President and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky.

The Trump-Zelensky call has led to an impeachment inquiry by the US House.

The groups, according to the CREW and historical archivists’ court filings Tuesday, are accusing the Trump administration of refusing to respond to their requests to keep documents related to the whistleblower complaint. That complaint was released this past week and alleges Trump abused his official powers “to solicit interference” from Ukraine in the 2020 election and that the White House took steps to cover it up. Trump has denied any wrongdoing.

The government transparency groups’ lawyers asked the White House on September 20 for confirmation that it would keep records including those that relate to the whistleblower’s complaint and Trump’s call with Zelensky.

The Justice Department, responding on behalf of the White House, wouldn’t give them that assurance, saying it was “privileged legal advice.”

“In the face of the palpable risk that presidential records will be irreparably lost to Plaintiffs and the American people, Defendants have refused to provide Plaintiffs with adequate assurances that pending the resolution of this lawsuit all relevant information will be preserved,” lawyers for the government transparency groups wrote Tuesday. “To hold the President immune from any lawsuit seeking to make him accountable for his recordkeeping violations would, however, fly in the face of the text and purpose of the [Presidential Records Act], its historical context, and the congressional record.”

The Presidential Records Act, initially passed in 1978, says presidential records are publicly owned documents and should be archived — often so the public may have access to them after the President leaves office.

This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.